The Wall Street Journal article “Maine’s Largest City Strains under Asylum-Seeker Influx” is a good example of how a social problem may be inadvertently misrepresented. The article gives the impression that there is a disaster in the making in Portland, Maine – that the city is either on the brink of bankruptcy, or that there is an invasion underway by asylum seeker families. Neither is the case.
In fact, Portland is doing very well. The real estate business is booming, banks, credit unions, car dealerships, grocery stores, microbreweries, and the tourism industry are all thriving. Portland has become a destination city, and bankruptcy is definitely not an issue. Portland does, however, have a problem in terms of its capacity to provide adequate emergency shelter and other basic needs. At present, for example, there are people living on the street despite the recent brutally cold weather. These people are not asylum seekers; they are Americans in trouble from untreated addictions and mental illness, who need more help than they are getting. Untreated mental health and addiction is straining the system.
Asylum seekers began arriving in significant numbers in Maine in 2011. The same period has seen strong economic growth in the city, and this is not complete coincidence. Almost 50% of asylum seekers are highly educated and more than 70% have extensive experience in a wide variety of fields, for example the medical and social services fields. At present 75% of caregivers (certified as either PSS, DSP, CNA’s) who are working in homecare and residential services that provide care for the elderly and others with physical and/or intellectual disabilities in Maine are immigrants. Many of these are highly educated asylum seekers who are unable to pursue their past careers in this country for a variety of reasons. In other words, this is a win-win situation, with immigrants providing services Americans need. Asylum seekers are not a threat to the wellbeing of Mainers – neither now nor in the future – in fact quite the opposite. Asylum seekers are helping strengthen the state. Portland should definitely improve its capacity to help those in need, but it is scapegoating to blame asylum seekers for straining the system.
Leopold Ndayisabye, Portland
President of The Rwandese Community Association of Maine (RCAM)